Students volunteering for the Special Needs Swim (SNS) program at Colorado State University learn that special needs individuals have different abilities, not disabilities.
Special Needs Swim enters its 38th year and is one of the longest running programs run through the SLiCE office. Seventy CSU student volunteers assist 70 participants who range in age from two-years-old to sixty. Some participants have been returning to the program since 1975.
“For me, it’s not work. I look forward to it each week, maybe even more than my participant,” said Brittney Kemp, biomedical and chemistry junior. “I’m making a new friend, one with a completely different world perspective.”
The participants’ disabilities range from physical to cognitive challenges.
“I call it a grocery list of disabilities — mild cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder, very severe allergies and asthma, eczema and depression, thyroid issue, diabetes,” said Libby Stoddard, mother of Sarah who has been a participant in the program for 18 years.
Sarah, now 23 years old has recently moved out of her parent’s house into a host home.
“This has always been a place where I can bring Sarah where she is accepted and celebrated for who she is,” Stoddard said.
Stoddard has developed a career as a family advocate for caregivers of special needs people, helping those who battle daily with the red-tape bureaucracy in the school, insurance and medical systems.
Someone with special needs has an entirely different perspective on the world and that perspective influences those around them.
Stoddard recounted a story when Sarah got a fortune cookie that told her she was going to come into a lot of wealth.
“When we were driving home, she saw a field of yellow wild flowers, and screamed, ‘Mom, that’s my gold!” Stoddard said.
Christopher Wilson, who is in his first year as a participant in SNS, sees the world and the people in it as a wonderful place to explore.
“I’m friendly. I like to go all over the world,” he said, as he pointed and waved across the room. Christopher is all smiles with eyes that light up during each practice, hugging his partner and others.
Barbara Wilson, Christopher’s caregiver and wife to CSU physics professor Robert Wilson, said she appreciates SNS because of it’s welcoming and safe environment.
“People feel comfortable here that they can leave their kids, which is not true of many programs,” Wilson said.
The volunteers for SNS come one night a week from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays or 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays to swim, laugh, gossip, and hang out with what starts out as a partner – but turns into a friend.
“I am awed by how much time you guys devote, it’s a huge commitment during college,” Wilson said.
Wilson compared SNS to other programs which Christopher has been involved with in the past, and loved that there is no separation between participants and volunteers, but they are rather looked on as equals.
“I love it when you don’t feel any separation,” Wilson said. “That’s what I really love. He’s an equal.”
The volunteers who come each week do not think of it as a service, but look at is as a time to be with friends.
“After you’ve worked with any kind of special needs population, you don’t want to stop,” Hannah De Vries, human development and family studies freshman, who found out about SNS through a video at her orientation.
The program runs through the academic year, but for some volunteers, the first practice in September can be filled with nerves.
“Students wonder, ‘How am I gonna fill an hour in a pool with a stranger?” said Brandon Devlin, a CSU graduate assistant for SNS. “And then they meet them, and it’s fine. All the millions of questions come up but it turns into a hang out with a friend.”
Debbie Beers, whose son, Nathan, was diagnosed with severe autism at a young age, was told Nathan would “never speak, never read, never do this or that.”
“It was like someone waving a red flag at me,” Beers said.
Nathan, who is a renowned chatterbox at SNS, has gained confidence and matured through the program.
“SNS has allowed Nathan to express himself, to be himself. He is accepted, not just by his partner, but the entire group,” Beers said. “You say Special Needs Swim…and his face just lights up!”
“With Nathan, I’ve learned to be able to love without expecting anything in return,” Beers said.
For Stoddard, and other members of the Fort Collins community, SNS is a program that changes how they think about CSU students.
“It made me realize that –this is going to be corny– that there is hope for the future,” Stoddard said.
Collegian Diversity Beat Reporter Hannah Hemperly can be reached at email@example.com.